A Short Piece

The Authority Circle

It’s rational not to trust authorities we require to be rationally informed.

Consider the following premises:

1. We require institutions, experts, and authorities.

(See this piece by George Orwell. Also, the short story “Ludwig” by O.G. Rose is relevant.)

2. Institutions, experts, and authorities sometimes take advantage of people, make mistakes, and the like.

(See The Opioid Crisis, Gulf of Tonkin, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the Replication Crisis, etc.)

3. It can be rational to distrust the institutions, experts, and authorities we require to be rational, but it is rarely clear when we should distrust them (and which), seeing as we probably need the institutions, experts, and authorities to help us figure this out — which puts us in a vicious circular problem. I will call this the “Authority Circle,” hinting at Heidegger’s “Hermeneutic Circle,” and it seems to be a kind of “Nash Equilibrium.”

4. To break the “Authority Circle,” we must act nonrational and perhaps trust authorities we have reason not to trust, which means we must make ourselves vulnerable. Please note, as discussed elsewhere, that “nonrational” is distinct from “irrational”: it is an action that transcends the simple binary and cannot be understand as simply one or the other. Also note that if the majority cannot handle “nonrational vulnerability,” democracies could be in trouble.

5. “Small and near systems” are easier to “nonrationally trust” than “large and distant systems.” Trusting the US Federal Government, which controls the military, exists hundreds of miles away, and is shrouded in bureaucracy, is much more difficult than trusting government entities I can visit, personally meet, and the like. Similar logic applies to scientific institutions, colleges, and so on. This is not to say “large and distant systems” have no role and shouldn’t exist, but it is to say that the “Authority Circle” will prove harder to penetrate. A few more points:

A. Do note that “ruling powers” could use the fact that we “must nonrationally trust them” to their advantage, as a way to manipulate us, a possibility which makes it even more rational not to trust them as we must.

B. If “What Does Religion Have to Do With Game Theory?” by O.G. Rose is correct that religions have helped society engage in “nonrational action” (without which society would collapse), perhaps it is not by chance then that the “Church” and the “State” have often worked together. Religions have perhaps helped people “trust in a State which people have reason not to trust” by framing the State as “doing God’s work,” as “expressing God’s Will,” and so on — perhaps religions have proven pivotal in helping societies manage the “Authority Circle.” Also note that perhaps we have hoped that “autonomous rationality” could “fill this hole” left by the decline of religion, but “autonomous rationality” is impossible (as discussed throughout O.G. Rose).

C. If “large and distant systems” are necessary, then it will likely prove necessary that we learn to live with the dilemma of the “Authority Circle,” which is existentially unsettling.

6. “Small and near systems” are likely no longer possible (at least not without devastating results).

(Consider “The Rationality of Invincibility and Self-Destruction” and “No Exit,” both by O.G. Rose)

7. We must learn to “nonrationally trust” “large and distant systems,” which is likely existentially too much for the majority to handle. If the majority cannot handle this dilemma of the “Authority Circle” today, the majority will likely vote rationally against authorities, authorities which are necessary for informed action.

8. Democracies will probably consume themselves (though it doesn’t follow that therefore totalitarian and/or centralized systems aren’t worse). Considering this, perhaps the “Authority Circle” is a reason history repeats? Perhaps the only way to “fix” the problem is with war (to “clean the slate,” in line with the thinking of Mancur Olson in The Rise and Decline of Nations). Hard to say.

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O.G. Rose

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